Thursday, February 25, 2010

Lenten Traditions

My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about Lenten traditions:

Q:  What is Lent?  Why do people give up something they enjoy?  Are there any other traditions associated with Lent?

Much like a school year or a company’s fiscal year differs from our calendar year, there is also a church year that includes seasons and festivals commemorated by Christians.  Because Christmas and Easter are such important festivals for the church, this calendar includes special seasons to prepare for these festivals.  The season of preparation for Christmas is called Advent and the season of preparation for Easter is called Lent. 

Lent is a forty day season, but Sundays are not counted toward the forty, so this results in the first day of Lent being 46 days before Easter, which is called Ash Wednesday.  On Ash Wednesday, many Christians gather to receive the Lord’s Supper and allow themselves to be marked with ashes on the forehead to remind them of their failure to keep God’s commands and that the result is death.

Contrary to many misconceptions, Lent is not intended to be a season of mourning for Jesus death or a season of misery or despair for Christians.  Instead, it is a season where Christians are encouraged to pay special attention to remembering all that Jesus has done for them by becoming human, dying by crucifixion, and rising to life after three days. 

Part of this focus includes an emphasis on repentance which means to turn away from the desire for sinful things and toward trusting in Jesus.  Another common misconception about Lent is that it is the only time that Christians focus on repentance and remembering Jesus’ death.  These two things are always focal points in Christianity, but in Lent, they receive special emphasis as they are remembered in preparation to celebrate Easter.

Because of the focus on repentance in Lent, fasting has been a very common practice throughout history.  The most intense form of fasting is to refrain from eating or drinking anything except for water for a period of time, but typical Lenten fasting only includes giving up certain types of food or giving up food for certain portions of the day.  Historically, the most common type of fasting for Lent has been to give up meat to various degrees.  This could be as simple as giving up beef one day a week or as drastic as eating a basically vegan diet for the entire Lenten season.

In modern times, this fasting has often expressed itself differently.  Catholics and Lutherans especially, but many protestants as well, will give up something which they enjoy during the season of Lent, such as chocolate, coffee, sugar, or television.  However, this is not intended to be a sacrifice to make up for sins or to earn God’s kindness.  Instead, giving up a favorite luxury serves as a reminder to remember the sacrifice Jesus made for us by dying for sin.  Celebrations like Carnival or Mari Gras original began as people enjoyed these favorite things one last time before giving them up for Lent. 

Other Lenten traditions in the church include giving up more joyful parts of the Divine Service or Mass, such as certain songs or the word “Alleluia.”  In the past, some churches have even stopped using their organ or other musical instruments for the entire season of Lent. 

The intention of Lent and of each of these Lenten traditions is never that they be approached as a requirement to satisfy church rules or as something we do to appease God or make up for our failures, but that they are an exercise which helps Christians to remember their need for a Savior from sin and that Jesus has fulfilled that need by accomplishing everything necessary for the salvation of the world by His life, death, and resurrection. 

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Numbering the Ten Commandments

My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about numbering the Ten Commandments:

Q:  Why are the Ten Commandments assigned different numbers in different types of churches?

The complete list of Ten Commandments is found in two places in the Bible:  Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5.  These two biblical lists are primarily the same, with only slight variations in wording.  However, neither of these lists is numbered.  Beginning very early in Judaism, the commandments have always been numbered as ten, but even among Jewish rabbis, the numbering of the list has varied over the course of time.  Likewise, among Christians the arrangement of the commandments has often varied, although always adding up to ten.

There are two primary ways that the commandments are numbered today among Christians.  The first, and the one with which I am most familiar, is that held by Lutherans and Roman Catholics.  In this system, the commandments are numbered as follows:

  1.  You shall have no other gods.
  2. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.
  3. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
  4. Honor your father and mother.
  5. You shall not murder.
  6. You shall not commit adultery.
  7. You shall not steal.
  8. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
  9. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.
  10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. [The words “wife” and “house” may be reversed in different traditions.]
The second way that the commandments are numbered is held by most Protestant denominations and Eastern Orthodox churches, who consider the Second Commandment to be “You shall not make for yourself any graven image.”  Commandments three through eight above are then numbered one higher and commandments nine and ten are combined into a single commandment.  The way that the commandments have been phrased here is condensed for the sake of memorization.  All eleven of the commands listed so far, along with some introduction and commentary, are a part of the commandments as written in the Bible.  The difference is not in the content of the commandments, but only in their numbering. 

St. Augustine, who is considered one of the greatest theologians in Christian history, began the tradition of numbering the commandments in the way familiar to Lutherans and Roman Catholics.  It is a result of his influence that the Roman Catholic Church numbers the commandments as they do.  Martin Luther began his theological studies as a Catholic monk, and was familiar with the writings of St. Augustine.  Since he saw no deficiencies with that numbering of the commandments, Lutherans continued to number them in the same way as Roman Catholics, even after they became separate churches. 

The numbering system used by most Protestants and the Eastern Orthodox comes from another ancient Christian teacher named Origin.  All Christians, regardless of which numbering system they use, acknowledge that all the words of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 are God’s commands.  Lutherans and Catholics still believe that God commands humans not to make or worship idols, but they consider these words to be an explanation of the first commandment against having other gods rather than a separate commandment.

More important than the way in which the Ten Commandments are numbered is that Christians continually examine their lives in light of them, repenting where they have failed, receiving the forgiveness of Jesus, and going forward again with the desire to keep them with a thankful faith toward God which results a fervent love for one another.